The movie centers on Solomon Northrup, a free man who is lured from New York to Washington, where he is abducted, sold into bondage and taken to Louisiana. His struggle to survive and regain his freedom reveals the depth of the oppressive system that pervaded American life.
For example, the United States Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. That definition gave Southern states more Congressional seats and more power in determining the course of the nation.
“Counting slaves as three-fifths of a person would bring a state’s representation higher,” says Ed Pennell, a park ranger at the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York. “When you look at from that perspective, you get the idea of how interwoven slavery was into the United States system of governing.”
That constitutional compromise is an important fact about slavery. Here are 10 more things to know about the institution that brought millions of people into the western hemisphere.
The North Atlantic slave trade spanned almost four centuries and encompassed the New World.
Say slavery, and most folks think of the Southern plantations in the mid-19th century. Influential books like “Gone with the Wind,” and “Jubilee” by Margaret Walker are certainly centered on that region and era. But the slaves were imported from Africa into the New World from the 1500s to the 1800s. The trade peaked from 1750 to 1850, according to historian Philip Curtin.
Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census by Philip Curtin
Most slaves were not brought to North America
Scholars now estimate about 13 million Africans were kidnapped, enslaved and shipped to the Americas; about 10.6 million survived the journey. The bulk of the captives – almost 90 percent – went to Brazil, other parts of South America and the Caribbean. Although estimates vary, scholars believe roughly 475,000 enslaved Africans were bound for North America during the entire slave trade. That’s why Curtin calls this country a “marginal recipient of slaves from Africa.”
Sources: The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census by Philip Curtin and “The U.S. Slave Trade”
Two major regions in Africa sent captives to the United States
About half the Africans brought to the United States came from Senegambia and west-central Africa. Senegambia includes modern Senegal, Gambia, Mali and Guinea-Bisseau. West-Central Africa includes modern Congo, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. Some regions that contributed heavily to the overall slave trade sent relatively few people to the United States. Africans who were transported from the Bight of Benin, such as the Yoruba, Ewe and Fon, wound up in Cuba, Trinidad, Brazil and the French Caribbean.
Source: “The U.S. Slave Trade”
Africans contributed brains and brawn to the New World economies.
In colonial South Carolina, for example, slaveowners valued slaves from Gambia because they were familiar with cultivating cash crops like rice and indigo. Historian Daniel Littlefield claims the rice economy wouldn’t have existed without the slaves’ expertise. “Carolinians may well have gone to Gambia as students, and brought back Africans as teachers, making the African influence on the development of rice cultivation a decisive one,” Littlefield writes.
Source: Rice and Slaves by Daniel Littlefield
Not all slaveowners were white
James Pendarvis was a black slave owner who lived near Colleton, SC. He was the oldest child of Joseph Pendarvis, who was white, and Parthena, who was black. James inherited his father’s plantations and slaves. When he died in 1798, he owned three plantations and 155 slaves. He left his property to his grandchildren. Some of Pendarvis’ slaves are listed here.
Source : Lowcountry Africana, www.lowcountryafricana.com
Slaves had respites and holidays.
Slaves did have time off – usually Saturday afternoon and Sunday. While Saturday was often reserved for personal chores like laundry and gardening – slaves were responsible for growing much of their food – Sundays were time to play music, sing or dance. Slaveowners threw parties for slaves, as well.
One of the more common events was cornshucking. Slaves from several plantations would gather to shuck the corn of a specific slaveowner. In return, that slaveowner would provide food and liquor. “The corn-shucking was a combination of labor and recreation,” says historian John Blassingame. “The slaves enjoyed the evening away from the quarters, meeting friends and sweethearts…telling tall stories and singing hilarious songs.”
Source: The Slave Community by John Blassingame
But slave singing wasn’t merely entertainment
A scene in 12 Years a Slave features a white overseer singing “Run ni**a Run, the Padder-Roller Catch You.” In fact, scholars claim slaves used that song – as well as others - to warn comrades that the slaves patrollers were roaming. Folklorist Roger Abrahams says the song has many versions, but they start with the same line, “Run ni**a run, the padder-roller catch you.”
“The rest of the stanzas tend to report comic scenes that emerge as part of the need to escape,” he writes.
Source: Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South by Roger Abrahams
Slave were slaveowners’ personal property
In the movie, an overseer saves Northrup from a lynching. But the overseer acts from practicality: the plantation owner is still paying the mortgage on his property – the man being fitted with the noose. Even though human, slaves could be mortgaged, assessed, taxed and inherited. The slave owner further benefited because slaves had children. He could bequeath future generations to his heirs and their descendants.
Thus Micah Mixon, a South Carolina slaveholder, left the following property to two of his daughters in 1805: “One Negro man called LITTLE SAM & one Negro woman called BELL. Each of them (the daughters) to have an equal right to the use and profit and increase of the said two Negroes to them & the heirs of their bodys (cq) forever.”
Source: Will of Micah Mixon, Afrigeneas Slave Data Collection.
Runaway slaves posed a constant problem for plantation owners and overseers
“It was a rare owner, large or small, who could boast that he had never had a slave abscond from his farm or plantation,” writes historian John Hope Franklin. Dealing with runaways consumed time and money, so slaveowners relied on harsh punishments. Penalties included lashings of 50 to 100 stripes, paddling, shackling or revoking privileges. Some overseers punished non-runaways by working them harder in hopes those left behind would tattle on the escapee. Nothing seemed to end the problem, though. “Few overseers were able to solve the problem of slaves running away, whatever the method of correction,” Franklin says.
Source: Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation 1790-1860 by John Hope Franklin
Slaves often ran away to reunite with family members – or to keep from being separated from them.
“[Slaves] ran to neighboring plantations to be with husbands or wives, ran away to search for mothers or fathers, and all too often in vain for their children,” Franklin writes. News of an impending sale could spark spontaneous escape attempts. Franklin tells the story of Sophia, who grabbed her children and ran from Maryland to Washington D.C. The family was captured and sold; the money went to care for Sophia’s mistress who “suffered great imbecility of mind,” according court records of the case.